European regulators clear mobile broadband for take-off

Passengers flying in the European Union may soon be able to use 3G and 4G mobile broadband in the air, after a rule-change by regulators at the European Commission. The shift allows the use 3G and 4G radio spectrum at an altitude of 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) or more.

Now that the Commission has green-lit the use of mobile broadband spectrum at such lofty heights (2G spectrum use is already allowed at the same altitude), the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) is expected to issue specific guidance about the use of devices by the end of this month. It is then up to the airlines themselves to decide whether they want to allow their passengers to use their smartphones and tablets in this way.

That’s because anyone hoping to take advantage of mobile broadband up in the sky will need the airline’s own mobile network to do so. This “mobile communication on-board aircraft” (MCA) system is usually connected to the ground via satellite link, and the Commission noted on Thursday that “new satellites should allow ten times greater capacity than what is available today” – good news for those expecting speeds in the same ballpark as those achieved on the ground. There’s also a new generation of direct air-to-ground systems, which avoid satellites, incoming.

So the rule change is really about what kind of MCA system airlines can install. In case you’re wondering about roaming costs, they will generally be the same as if you’re a European surfing outside Europe — “Roaming: rest of the world” tariffs.

These sorts of services are really taking off in the U.S. and elsewhere, despite rather exorbitant pricing for not-great speeds. According to the Commission, MCA data traffic grew more than 300 percent between 2011-2012.

EASA also said on Wednesday that passengers on flights operated by European airlines would be able to use personal electronic devices during all stages of flights, mirroring recent developments in the U.S. However, that scenario still involved devices being put in flight mode, which will presumably only apply to take-off and landing in the cases of airlines that also want to offer mobile broadband services above 3km.